Continuing Bluebird’s examination of the booming hemp industry as part of Hemp History Week, let’s dive into yet another way that this wonderfully versatile crop is poised to challenge the status quo and usher in a new age of agriculture. Today, we’re going to look specifically at the differences between hemp vs. cotton as agricultural crops.
Join Bluebird as we examine the strengths and drawbacks of each when it comes to manufacturing high-quality, environmentally sustainable clothes and fabrics.
Spoiler: it’s not really much of a contest.
Comfort and durability
Out of fairness, we have to give credit where credit is due: it’s no secret that cotton is the current reigning royalty of clothing production, and that is largely because cotton creates a wonderfully soft fabric that gets softer the more you wear and wash it. Cotton also makes an extremely lightweight fabric with great breathability and a propensity for absorbing moisture.
Who doesn’t love curling up with soft flannel sheets or feeling a warm breeze through their t-shirt? Perhaps not surprisingly, though, cotton’s supremacy as a clothing fabric is far from incontestable.
While hemp might not be as immediately soft as cotton — hemp fibers are sturdier than cotton fibers and create more rigid clothes — hemp textiles also get softer and softer with each wear and wash. And, with stronger fibers, hemp clothes offer a consistently longer lifespan than cotton-based textiles. Hemp clothing is simply more durable and, in terms of sustainability, it’s the clear winner: longer-lasting textiles means you won’t need to produce or acquire new clothing nearly as often.
What about the environment?
As you likely know, the hemp plant is relatively easy to grow — that’s one possible reason why Cannabis sativa has been known as “weed” for so long. Cotton, on the other hand, can be a truly finicky and difficult crop to farm. For this reason (and several others) hemp is clearly the more environmentally beneficial crop.
Hemp vs. cotton, for example, uses far less water to reach full maturity — about half, in fact. Unlike cotton, hemp doesn’t necessarily need to be irrigated. Additionally, because hemp fiber is so much denser than cotton, farmers can produce nearly three times as much fiber from hemp instead of cotton if each crop were allocated the same number of acres of farmland.
In terms of environmental sustainability, cotton has just one advantage over hemp: hemp requires slightly more energy (usually sourced from fossil fuels) than cotton to process and convert it into clothing. This benefit, however, is outweighed by the durability of the end-product, the reduced need for water, and the increased yield that hemp provides, however.
Pesticides and chemicals
Remember how much easier it is to grow hemp vs. cotton? A big part of that is due to the massive quantity of pesticides that modern cotton farms must employ to guarantee results. In fact, the world uses more chemical pesticides on cotton than any other crop, and cotton accounts for 16% of global insecticide use. Even more chemicals are used — as many as 8,000 different types of chemicals, according to some reports — to turn cotton into the clothing and furniture upholstery that we are so familiar with.
Hemp, on the other hand, can be grown relatively easily with minimal or even zero pesticides used whatsoever. And, while it may use more energy to convert into textiles, hemp has more naturally-occurring colors and therefore requires fewer chemical-based dyes for the finished product.
To top it off, hemp grows much faster and more densely than cotton. A hemp crop can be finished in 70 to 110 days, but cotton crops require some 160 days from seed to harvest. Cotton’s long harvest process also means it can only be grown in specific, warmer climates as a single frost can doom an entire crop. This is why cotton in the U.S. is found only in the south, while hemp crops can be grown in the rainy valleys of Oregon, the mountains of Colorado, the rolling plains of Kentucky, and everywhere in between.
Hemp is also a known remediator for worn-out soil, which makes it a more efficient use of agricultural land. Hemp roots actually aerate soil and remove toxins, which can leave it richer for future crops.
Hemp for victory
From t-shirts to tuxedos, hemp-based attire is on the rise! As more hemp farms are established around the world, and as new industrial technologies are developed, hemp textiles are likely going to be an increasingly viable alternative to cotton for manufacturers, and increasingly common in the clothing products consumers have available.